African-American history: The Gabriel Prosser slave revolt

The following is an excerpt from American Negro Slave Revolts by Herbert Aptheker, New York: International Publishers, 1974, pages 219-226 (original edition: Columbia University Press, 1943).



Probably the most fateful year in the history of American Negro slave revolts is that of 1800, for it was then that Nat Turner and John Brown were born, that Denmark Vesey bought his freedom, and it was then that the great conspiracy named after Gabriel, slave of Tomas H. Prosser of Henrico Country, Virginia, occurred.

This Gabriel, the chosen leader of the rebellious slaves, was a 24-year-old giant of six feet two inches, “a fellow of courage and intellect above his rank in life,” who had intended “to purchase a piece of silk for a flag, on which they would have written ‘death or liberty.’”

Another leader was Jack Bowler, four years older and three inches taller than Gabriel, who felt that “we had as much right to fight for our liberty as any men.”

Gabriel’s wife, Nanny, was active, too, as were his brothers, Solomon and Martin. The former conducted the sword-making, and the latter bitterly opposed all suggestion of delaying the outbreak, declaring, “Before he would any longer bear what he had borne, he would turn out and fight with his stick.”

The conspiracy was well-formed by the spring of 1800, and there is a hint that wind of it early reached Governor Monroe, for in a letter to Thomas Jefferson, dated April 22, he referred to “fears of a negro insurrection.”

Crude swords and bayonets as well as about 500 bullets were made by the slaves through the spring, and each Sunday Gabriel entered Richmond, impressing the city’s features upon his mind and paying particular attention to the location of arms and ammunition.

Yet, as Callender wrote, it was “kept with incredible secrecy for several months,” and the next notice of apprehensions of revolt appears in a letter of Aug. 9 from Mr. J. Grammer of Petersburg to Mr. Augustine Davis of Richmond.

This letter was given to the distinguished Dr. James McClurg, who informed the military authorities and the governor. The next disclosure came during the afternoon of Saturday, Aug. 30, set for the rebellion and was made by Mr. Mosby Sheppard, whose slaves, Tom and Pharoah, had told him of the plot.

Monroe, seeing that speed was necessary and secrecy impossible, acted quickly and openly. He appointed three aides for himself, asked for and received the use of the federal armory at Manchester, posted cannon at the capitol, called into service well over 650 men and gave notice of the plot to every militia commander in the state.

“But,” as a contemporary declared, “upon that very evening just about sunset, there came on the most terrible thunder accompanied with an enormous rain, that I ever witnessed in this state. Between Prosser’s and Richmond, there is a place called Brook Swamp, which runs across the high road, and over which there was a ... bridge. By this, the Africans were of necessity to pass, and the rain had made the passage impracticable.” Nevertheless, about 1,000 slaves, some mounted, armed with clubs, scythes, home-made bayonets and a few guns, did appear at an agreed-upon rendezvous six miles outside the city, but, as already noted, attack was not possible, and the slaves disbanded. As a matter of fact even defensive measures, though attempted, could not be executed.

The next few days the mobilized might of an aroused slave state went into action and scores of Negroes were arrested. Gabriel had attempted to escape via a schooner, Mary, but when in Norfolk on Sept. 25, he was recognized and betrayed by two Negroes, captured and brought back, in chains, to Richmond.

He was quickly convicted and sentenced to hang, but the execution was postponed until Oct. 7, in the hope that he would talk. James Monroe personally interviewed him, but reported, “From what he said to me, he seemed to have made up his mind to die, and to have resolved to say but little on the subject of the conspiracy.”

Along with Gabriel, 15 other rebels were hanged on the seventh of October. Twenty-one were reported to have been executed prior to this, and four more were scheduled to die after Oct. 7.

A precise number of those executed cannot be given with certainty, but it appears likely that at least 35 Negroes were hanged, four condemned slaves escaped from prison (and no reference to their recapture has been seen), while one committed suicide in prison.

These Negroes, who were conscious revolutionists, behaved nobly. A resident of Richmond declared, in a letter of Sept. 20, 1800, “Of those who have been executed, no one has betrayed his cause. They have uniformly met death with fortitude.”

An eminent eyewitness of the rebels’ conduct while in custody, John Randolph, six days later, stated, “The accused have exhibited a spirit, which, if it becomes general, must deluge the Southern country in blood. They manifested a sense of their rights, and contempt of danger, and a thirst for revenge which portend the most unhappy consequences.”

Monroe’s laconic comment concerning his interview with Gabriel a short time before the latter’s execution has already been quoted. Such testimony adds credibility to the story told by an Englishman who visited Virginia in 1804.

On the afternoon of Sept. 25 of that year, as he tells the tale, “I passed by a field [near Richmond] in which several poor slaves had lately been executed, on the charge of having an intention to rise against their masters. A lawyer who was present at their trials at Richmond informed me that on one of them being asked what he had to say to the court in his defence, he replied, in a manly tone of voice: ‘I have nothing more to offer than what General Washington would have had to offer, had he been taken by the British and put to trial by them. I have adventured my life in endeavouring to obtain the liberty of my countrymen, and am a willing sacrifice to their cause; and I beg, as a favour, that I may be immediately led to execution. I know that you have pre-determined to shed my blood, why then all this mockery of a trial?’”

The character of the rebels and their aim caused conscience-searching on the part of the one-time rebel who was at the moment governor. He wrote to another who had played a leading role in a bloody revolution, written an immortal manifesto of rebellion and was at the moment the key figure in a bloodless revolution – the presidential campaign of 1800; James Monroe wrote to Thomas Jefferson asking his advice about the execution of the Negro leaders.

Mr. Jefferson replied: “The other states and the world at large will forever condemn us if we indulge a principle of revenge, or go one step beyond absolute necessity. They cannot lose sight of the rights of the two parties, and the object of the unsuccessful one.” Ten of the condemned slaves were reprieved and banished.

As has been previously mentioned (and this again is an indication of the attitude of the slaves), Methodists, Quakers, and Frenchmen were to be spared by the rebels. It is also very interesting to observe that the Negroes expected or, at least, hoped that the poorer whites would aid them in their effort to destroy the system of slavery.

The Negroes had been aware, too, of the strained relations between the United States and France, which from 1797 to 1799, had brought the two nations to the thoroughly modern stage of undeclared war, leading the slaves to hope for French assistance. And the very recent reductions in the Federal army, following improvement in those relations, were also noticed and used as an argument against postponement of the uprising. It had been planned, too, to recruit allies from among the Catawba Indians.

It is difficult to say just how many slaves were involved in this conspiracy. One witness at the trials said 2,000, another 6,000, and a third 10,000. The Governor of Mississippi Territory said 50,000. Monroe, himself, asserted: “It was distinctly seen that it embraced most of the slaves in this city [Richmond] and neighbourhood, and that the combination extended to several of the adjacent counties, Hanover, Caroline, Louisa, Chesterfield, and to the neighbourhood of the Point of the Fork; and there was good cause to believe that the knowledge of such a project pervaded other parts, if not the whole of the State.”

Although Monroe was of the opinion that the plot did not extend beyond the borders of his state, there were repercussions elsewhere. There were rumors of rebelliousness in North Carolina, but what foundation in fact these may have had is unclear.

It is, however, a fact that at the trials of the Virginia rebels, a slave did testify that he had asked Gabriel whether he or Jack Bowler was versed in the art of war, and that Gabriel had replied in the negative, but had declared that “a man from North Carolina, who was at the siege [sic] of York town” was to be with them and provide the necessary technical knowledge.

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Herbert Aptheker

“The Gabriel Prosser Slave Revolt” is taken from American Negro Slave Revolts by Herbert Aptheker, a leading scholar of African-American history who helped lay the foundations for Black Studies at U.S. universities. Born in Brooklyn in 1915, Aptheker has authored over 250 books and articles.

His 1943 Columbia University doctoral dissertation, American Negro Slave Revolts, overturned establishment history portraying slavery as benevolent and slaves as passive. His seven-volume Documentary History of the Negro People of the United States (1951-94) was the first comprehensive compilation of the writings of African Americans. Custodian of W.E.B. Du Bois’ papers, Aptheker has edited numerous collections of Du Bois’ writings.

Always a political activist, in 1938-39 Aptheker organized field workers in the South and led a life-risking escape of a hundred African Americans from peonage. During World War II, he commanded a battalion of Black troops in Louisiana in the then-segregated U.S. Army. He took part in combat in Europe as a major in the artillery.

A member of the Communist Party USA National Committee for several decades, Aptheker frequently contributed to progressive publications. He also edited Political Affairs and Jewish Life. In 1964, he founded the American Institute of Marxist Studies, the principal source of information on Marxist scholarship during the Cold War.

In 1966, he led, in open defiance of the government, a three-person mission to Hanoi, bringing back Vietnamese negotiating terms. His mission to Hanoi was important in the campaign to end the war.

As a Communist, Aptheker was denied a regular university appointment, receiving only temporary ones. In the late 1970s, he created – and taught for 10 years – a course on “Racism and the Law” at the University of California, Berkeley. In 1996, the University of Massachusetts awarded him an honorary doctorate.

Copies of American Negro Slave Revolts can be purchased from International Publishers, 239 W. 23 St., New York NY 10011, (212) 366-9816, www.intpubnyc.com. – Erwin Marquit